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How the seat was won: Inside the fight to put Ireland on the UN Security Council

It was a 15-year campaign. In the end, most of the Middle East and swathes of Africa voted for us

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone

When Ireland first announced its candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council for the 2021-22 term, Bertie Ahern was taoiseach, George W Bush had just won a second term in the White House, YouTube did not yet exist and Leo Varadkar was a little-known 26-year-old councillor in north Dublin.

A 15-year campaign that began quietly with that announcement in 2005 would involve several governments, hundreds of ministers and officials, thousands of meetings and phone calls and so much hospitality for foreign diplomats that, as one official put it, there were “no crustaceans left on the sea bed”.

And then it came down to this: on Wednesday evening, in an otherwise deserted Iveagh House, the Dublin headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs, a clutch of officials along with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney gathered in the ballroom to watch a live feed from New York on the big screen. A few streets away, in Government Buildings, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also looked on.

Ireland was competing with Norway and Canada for two of the rotating seats allocated to the Western Europe/Other States group. With 192 UN member states voting, and each having two votes, the threshold for victory was 128. If two candidates did not reach that number, a second round would take place the next day.


In Dublin that night, the plan for “phase two” was in place. From 4pm New York time, the moment the first round result would be announced, the entirety of the State’s diplomatic network would be mobilised in a huge co-ordinated push to contact every government in the world – and ask for their vote – by the time second round voting would begin 17 hours later.

Each one of Ireland’s ambassadors around the world was on standby with instructions. Many of them were to try to schedule calls for senior Irish ministers with their local counterparts, with specific lists of target countries drawn up for key government ministers. Where Ireland did not have an embassy, EU ambassadors had agreed to act as intermediaries.

The calls were to begin in Latin America and the Caribbean. "As the sun rose, we would move from Asia into Europe and Africa, " says one insider. A phone bank was set up in Iveagh House to keep track of the process; one official calls it "the situation room". Everyone was ready to work through the night.

As it turned out, those plans were not needed. Norway and Ireland won the two seats in the first round, with 130 and 128 votes, respectively. Canada got 108 and lost out. When Ireland takes its seat on the UN’s supreme decision-making body next January, it will be its fourth time at the table since joining the UN in 1955.

EU support

Ireland had gone into the official two-year campaign with its stock high at the UN, having successfully co-chaired the fraught 2015 negotiations on a new set of global development goals. As the only EU member in the race, it knew it could count on solid support from its 26 continental partners, while the State’s strong standing in the Middle East – the Government believes all Arab states but one voted for it – and in parts of Africa, provided a strong base.

Another important constituency was the group of small island developing states, many of them in the Pacific and the Caribbean, which the campaign worked assiduously.

A security council campaign has two elements: a public one consisting of events, messaging and marketing, and a private one (“the street fighting”, as one participant puts it) aimed at securing votes.

Every time an Irish minister or diplomat discussed the campaign with a foreign counterpart anywhere in the world, it was logged and filed

The public campaign took shape in May 2018, when three of the central players – Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland's permanent representative to the UN in New York; Brendan Rogers, deputy secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs; and John Concannon, director of the Global Ireland initiative at the department – spent a week brainstorming at the Irish mission overlooking East River in Manhattan.

From that emerged the themes of the campaign – "empathy, independence, partnership" – and a plan for a series of events over the following two years. U2 put on a concert for UN ambassadors at Madison Square Garden (the band did not charge the State). Last June, more than 30 ambassadors from the small island developing states group spent a week in Cork and Dublin, where they attended Seafest and a summit on climate change and maritime issues.

One of the last events on Broadway before Covid-19 restrictions were imposed in New York in March was a performance of Riverdance in support of Ireland's candidacy.

The campaign was led in Dublin by Rogers and UN director Frank Smyth, a veteran of Ireland's last security council campaign and the Government's in-house expert on UN elections. For the past two years, the unit built a profile of every country, their concerns and voting intentions. Were they confirmed? Were they wavering?

Every time an Irish minister or diplomat discussed the campaign with a foreign counterpart anywhere in the world, it was logged and filed. They also monitored the opposition: who were the Norwegians and Canadians meeting, where were their foreign ministers travelling.

Every Sunday, the senior members of the team would meet in the office of Niall Burgess, the department's secretary general, with Byrne Nason on video link from New York, to plan for the following week.

The campaign drew quietly on a number of well-known figures outside of Government. Ministers credit President Michael D Higgins with having played a vital role; he often spoke to world leaders about the campaign, and his credibility in Africa and Latin America in particular was important.

Irish people with extensive contacts books in world politics, including Mary Robinson, Eamon Gilmore and Bono, were involved at different points. On one occasion Enda Kenny travelled to Barbados, and a number of retired diplomats operated as roving envoys to countries where Ireland had no diplomatic mission. Sometimes their lobbying paid off by pure luck.

Just a few weeks ago, in the case of one country where the nearest Irish embassy was 1,000km away, a campaign envoy decided to call the resident EU ambassador for a steer. “It’s a good thing you called me now,” the ambassador said. “I’m having dinner with the head of the foreign ministry. I’m handing the phone to him now.”

A few days later, Ireland got a voting commitment in writing.

Secret ballot

As the campaign drew a close, some in Government calculated that if 15 per cent of pledges did not translate into a vote (this is close to the standard discount candidates apply in security council elections) then it was 50/50 as to whether Ireland would win a seat in the first round. But while ministers and officials felt they had momentum, they were far from certain.

The election was by secret ballot, and Covid-19 lockdowns in the final months had made it harder both to campaign and to keep an eye on the opposition. Coveney made 80 calls to foreign counterparts in recent weeks to shore up the vote, as it was known in Dublin that efforts were being made late on to turn votes that had been committed to Ireland. “It took immense courage on the part of many member states to resist that pressure,” says one official.

About half of the UN's work relates to Africa, and a third concerns the Middle East

For the past four years, planning for the campaign has been overshadowed by Brexit, an era-defining event whose fallout has dominated the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Some wondered whether that, as well as efforts to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which also consumed a lot of the department's energy, would scupper the campaign. There were concerns that those crises close to home could cause Ireland's foreign policy horizon to contract.

In fact the opposite happened: with Brexit, the Government concluded that it had to build new relationships and expand its footprint. New missions were opened in Asia, Africa and Latin America, in turn extending the campaign’s reach.

“For us giving equal weight to the security council campaign was about ensuring that we had a foreign policy with bandwidth,” says one insider. “And if you have a foreign policy with bandwidth, you’re actually stronger on the regional issues as well.”

‘A vanity project’

Critics doubt the value to Ireland of a presence on the security council. Some question the Government’s motives in contesting the election – “a vanity project”, one contributor to this newspaper wrote dismissively. Others point to the security council’s many shortcomings, not least the paralysing effect of the veto powers held by its five permanent members and its resulting inability to act on some of the major issues of the day.

In each of its four campaigns, since the early 1960s, the State has framed its candidacy in a similar way, as a signal of national self-confidence, of Ireland’s preparedness to speak up on pillars of its foreign policy such as multilateralism, human rights and disarmament.

“On any day of the year, we have somewhere between 500 and 600 peacekeepers in the field: Irish men and women, in places that are profoundly risky and fragile,” one Government figure says. “The Canadians have about 30 or 40 peacekeepers in the field at the moment. We have an investment that is off the chart relative to many other UN member states. And that’s the table where these mandates are decided and these issues dealt with.”

About half of the UN’s work relates to Africa, and a third concerns the Middle East. Ireland’s foreign policy, measured by financial and political investment, is focused heavily on these two regions.

“If you’re going to have an understanding of how decisions are made, then you should be on the security council,” says one Government figure. “We aspire to be sitting at that table one year in 10. It’s not an overweening ambition, but it almost seems like a responsibility that, from time to time, the country seeks to take it on.”